Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series has sold over 7 million copies worldwide and inspired a generation of young readers. Alumna of Marlborough, she talks to Amanda Morison about the importance of letting children be creative in the classroom and going wild in the great outdoors.
Cressida Cowell read English at Oxford (Keble College) and went on to Saint Martin’s School of Art and Brighton University to study art. Asked which is more important to her work, the words or the illustration she admits, “I can’t imagine one without the other. I draw maps to make the setting feel like a real place, and write and sketch the characters to get a sense of what they’re like”. This brings to mind other author / illustrators, not least J.R. Tolkien who Cowell believes was inspired by his time on archaeological digs. “It was riddled with holes which may well have given him ideas for the Hobbit. It’s very interesting how the British landscape inspires”.
Cowell’s passion for igniting the imagination is inextricably linked with this belief in the importance of nature. Her well-documented childhood was spent in London (where aged five she’d cross
London by bus with her sister to go to school – “Imagine doing that now!”) and a deserted Scottish island. In true Swallows & Amazons-style, Cowell and her siblings roamed and sailed free all day. She feels that humans are hard-wired to explore, and without it there would be no creativity. “I worry about children’s access to nature. Nature writer Robert Macfarlane describes how the Oxford English Dictionary has stopped printing words like bluebell and acorn and replaced them with broadband and blog. If you lose these words it’s symbolic with losing touch with the countryside”.
While children might dream of visiting Burke, How to Train Your Dragon’s fictional island, Cowell admits that social services would arrest you if you tried to recreate the circumstances of her own childhood, “Sailing alone without life jackets probably isn’t a good idea. But you can take children to uninhabited places, camping or just somewhere with no internet. Let them climb trees!”.
This passion for nature has led Cowell to work with the Woodland Trust as an Honorary Nature Detective inspiring children to love and respect Britain’s wildlife. “When I visit Primary Schools you get lovely conversations about whether trees talk to each other, and if making their roots grow towards water means they have brains”.
Another significant influence on Cowell’s writing are her own experiences at school. An avid reader and excited by learning – “I even loved subjects I wasn’t very good at” – she was constantly in trouble for being messy and disorganised. “Xar, my boy wizard hero in The Wizards of Once series, acts first, thinks later, then gets demotivated and becomes confrontational. Wish, my girl hero, is dyslexic – my sister is dyslexic too. I identify with children who aren’t part of the norm and how demoralising that can be. And I can’t tell you how many parents have thanked me for having a dyslexic child as the writer”.
“When I visit Primary Schools you get lovely conversations about whether trees talk to each other, and if making their roots grow towards water means they have brains”.
Cowell’s female characters are also firmly in the spotlight. “I want girls to see heroines they admire. It was so annoying in the Famous Five to see Anne constantly making sandwiches. Emily Brown in my picture books is a redoubtable character. I cannot tell you how satisfactory it is when a 9-year-old boy says his favourite character is Wish or Camicazi. I’m not keen on the idea of boys’ or girls’ books”.
In 2018 Cowell launched Free Writing Friday, a campaign to inspire children to write for pleasure. “I wanted something very practical that pupils could do for 15 minutes every week. Every child gets a book in which they can write whatever they want. It isn’t marked or judged and allows the simple joy of writing without thinking about handwriting and spelling”. The initiative was partly inspired by Miss Mellows, Cowell’s Year 3 teacher, who allowed her just such a book. “It’s amazing how one teacher can have such a wonderful effect on somebody’s life”.
Her advice to young writers is to do as much reading as they possibly can. “Different types of stories: funny, adventure, factual. Ideas can come from everywhere; I read a lot of history to inspire me. And it’s fine to copy writers you admire or to not finish your stories. It’s all about practicing.”
And what about the excitement of getting her books optioned by Hollywood? It was a surprise to Cowell when the offers flooded in, then quickly apparent that the Dragon series wasn’t a TV project: “Dragons need good special effects”. Cowell had long admired Dreamworks, and knew they could do the dragons “Stunningly well”. “They are extraordinary artists and immediately cared about the major themes: the father / son relationship, the dragons representing wildness, and Hiccup being a new kind of leader. With a book I’m in charge as writer, director, set designer. With a film it’s an ensemble piece”.
When asked, as she often is, if she’ll write fiction for adults or move to LA and become a screenwriter, Cowell is clear: “I’m a writer of children’s books, and this is what I dreamt of being when I was a little girl. Part of the excitement is the quest of getting children to read. If you’re used to something magically beaming on to a screen reading can come to be associated with effort, so to have illustrations breaking up the text is a huge help. Illustration isn’t a weapon exactly, but as a tool in my armoury it’s hugely helpful. You have to fight to get readers. Books are under threat and we can’t lose them; they offer something special that films don’t, and research has proved their importance in gaining language and empathy skills”.
Asked which three people she’d take to the island of her childhood, the name that springs instantly from her mind is her, “Darling father. He died last year and knew everything about trees and landscapes. I’d also take Sir David Attenborough, another nature person. And Shakespeare! I think they’d get on. I imagine Shakespeare would be rather a gentle listening type of a man”.